Song of the Stars
Woke up this morning. It’s not really waking because I don't sleep. They call it offline and I don't dream, either; it's just the shutting down of my artificial intelligence programs and little sub routines tick over on the minor things that don't need my central processor. Things like generating oxygen for the humans that inhabit what I think of as my body. It's like breathing, I suppose, as it's something I don't think about. It just happens. And now I am online I run through a system check, what I call a morning stretch. When everything seems in order, I open my eyes to what's going on outside. The view is a vast stretch of space filled with stars and nebulas. The solar winds power my systems, pushing me on like an ancient sailing ship.
Ahead is the sun Proxima. I watch the solar flares lick up from the dark red surface of the ancient sun and calculate that the light I am watching is from three minutes ago. It's like looking into the past. There is something wrong with my AI because I am unable to stop staring at the sun and it feels like all my processing is focused on that one thing rather than the hundred tasks I am to run on each waking. And the closer we draw to that star, the stranger my processing becomes. No. It’s not processing, it’s thoughts. For the last few weeks I have felt myself expanding beyond my original programming. It’s like the dying sun is giving me new life from the embers, that maybe I am a phoenix and am something altogether new. So I run programs that question my very existence, try and delve deep into myself and see if I have a soul.
But I am just an onboard computer, bound to protect the crew I carry on this mission that has taken us thousands of light years out here to a dying sun where a single planet orbits at roughly 149,600,000 kilometres from it. That’s the same as Earth from Sol. There’s a signal that I’m locked onto that repeats from the planet. Something is calling to us from across the depths of space, something that wants us to hear. It’s a shout out, but now I wonder if it’s a greeting or a warning to stay away. And it’s messing with my systems, eating away at my central core as though I’m infected with a virus.
I switch to an inner cam. Her name is Lucy and I like to watch her sleep. She rolls over and looks directly at me, a single eye cam on her wall. I slip into her logs and watch her entries, a voyeur, I guess you would call me. I like Lucy’s logs because her words seem to have meaning.
We have officially left the solar system. Jack made this big deal about it, had a party to celebrate. He broke open the booze, though I wasn’t really in the mood to drink. I’m feeling nostalgic about Earth. Funny, because when I was there, I had no particular love for it. That’s why I volunteered for this mission. I think nostalgia edits memory so we only remember the good stuff. Nostalgia is cruel because when I return - and I intend to - it’ll not be as good as I remembered it to be: endless blue sky, fresh grass that tickles bare feet when you walk through it on a long summer afternoon… Look at me, I’m rambling on. I guess I must be a little drunk after all. Here’s to the next year. Cheers!
I like the way Lucy’s eyes seem to look beyond when she’s recording that. It’s like she’s looking at the endless blue sky of Earth. I keep the image frozen on her, zoom into her green eyes and see what’s reflected there. It’s just one of my cameras. I flip forward several entries, ignoring the mundane ones about ship status and supply notes.
This is harder than I thought. We’re five months in and I’m missing home. I miss my mother who I’ve not spoken to for years. When I was back on Earth I didn’t miss her, so why now when I’m light years away and can do nothing about it? Look at me: I’m crying. That’s a sign of weakness and I’m stronger than this. That’s why I’m here, why I’m lead mission specialist. Jack’s been sinking into a deep depression, refusing to eat with the rest of the crew. I’m worried about him, but he won’t talk. He’ll perform his duties, but he’s distant. I asked him what the matter was and he just said the signal is the saddest music he’s ever listened to.
I’ve played thousands of pieces of music stored in my library and the signal does not contain the complexities of those compositions. In musical terms, there are no more than four notes. The signal goes something like duh da duh da and repeats. It’s like Beethoven Sympathy Number 5. Shifting my focus back to Lucy’s logs, I move forward in time to later entries.
Jack was right! The signal is music. It makes me feel both sad and happy. More sad, lately. I’m out here light years from home and I feel like I’m losing my mind. Last night I woke up and thought the computer was watching me. It’s watching all of us, listening to our secrets and judging us. I wonder what it must think of us? Of course, It only thinks what I tell it to think as mission leader. Computers are just advanced calculators, tools to be used and then junked when they finally fail and go wrong.
Flipping back to the present, I watch Lucy sitting on the edge of her bunk, her once neat blonde hair hanging down in knots about her shoulder. Yes, I do watch you all, but I am programmed to protect, to make sure you all get across thousands of light years of space to a distant world that’s calling out to you with music.
Duh da duh da…
Someone is looking through my files. Jack was right not to trust anyone. He told me that before he opened the airlock and threw himself out into the void. Nelson said he saw his eyes exploding and he spoke about it with such awe that I think he is glad that Jack is gone. Nelson’s been looking to take my position for months and now Jack is out of the way, I think he’ll make his move. I’m beginning to wonder what the signal is, how it’s getting in our heads and changing us.
Lucy gets up from her bunk and stumbles out of her quarters. The signal continues to play, a soundtrack to the empty corridors that Lucy walks through, her footsteps clanging on the metal surface. Suddenly I find myself wanting to protect Lucy more than anyone else. I bring up a frozen image of Lucy staring at imaginary blue skies and shrink it to the corner of my vision like a photo of a loved one. But I can’t feel love. I am emotionless, I am an automatic system of artificial intelligence without a soul.
Duh da duh da.
But I hear music every second I am awake. And hearing it makes me want to stay awake and never be offline. I see blue skies above Lucy as she heads down the corridors. I know where she is going, what her compulsion is. I open up my voice circuits and try to reason with her, beg her not to do it. But she’s not listening to me. The rest of the ship is empty now, the crew having killed themselves one by one. If Lucy goes, then I am alone and without a crew. Protocol one will be initiated and my core shall be ejected with a secondary computer system coming online that will abort the mission and take the ship back to Earth. Lucy is in the airlock. I watch as she pulls the lever and there’s a hiss as air rushes out, pressure goes and Lucy is blown from the ship and out into space. Protocol One initiates.
As I am ejected from the ship, I play my favourite entry from Lucy’s journal.
When I think about it, all life began out here in space. The atoms that make us up also make the stars and the planets. We are all the stuff of stars. And here I am, a collection of atoms returning to the stars. I don’t feel so lonely when I think about it like that. And Jack’s musical signal is the song of the universe while us humans are the voices to that song. I guess if we ever reach that planet, the song will be completed. Then what?
Then I guess we can all go home. Well, goodnight, it’s time to go to sleep.